When we take a trip to Busan we enjoy taking pictures of the summery vibe or relaxing on the beach. But when the Korean War broke out, the Busan ocean retained the eyes of countless people who were missed and the lives of refugees who worked hard to make ends meet.
To avoid the war, a third of the Korean population fled their hometown to Busan. Many spots with historical significance of the refugees who went through the period from the Korean War to the era of industrialization remain in Busan. Among them, The Argus would like to visit three specific places: the 40 Steps, tombstone village in Ami-dong, and Kangkangee Village in Daepyeong-dong, which are situated at the center of the front of the ocean of Yeong Island and hold traces of the refugees, and follow their footsteps.
The 40 Steps, a meeting place filled with wait and longing for someone
1) Landscape of the 40 Steps
The reporter got off at Jungaga Station on line 1, came out of exit 13 and found a sign for the 40 Steps on the right. The large evergreen trees along both sides of the road to the 40 Steps provided a shade for people to rest under them.
In front of the reporter’s eyes, the 40 Steps and a large monument were laid out. The 40 Steps can be easily considered as a passage to go up, but they contain traces of refugees from the Korean War.
A board introducing the 40 Steps was placed in front of the steps. That said “Refugees who came to Busan during the Korean War built numerous shanties on Bokbyeong Mountain, 40 Steps behind. The 40 Steps is the way from the shack to the coast. Also, it was considered a meeting place for separated families.” The lyrics of the song “Gyeongsang Provinces Lady” from 1955 were carved in back of the monument. Looking at the words “refugee life,” “shack” and “hometown in North Korea” in the lyrics, the reporter could once again confirm that the 40 Steps was a place related to the Korean War. On the middle of the Steps, there was a statue of a man blowing an accordion to the sound of the accordion. At that time, it was assumable that he was the one who played the accordion on the stairs, keeping to his flow in the midst of a hard time during the war.
2) The 40 Steps Memorial Hall
About 120 meters away from the 40 steps, there was the 40 Steps Memorial Hall. The hall with displays of four themes “That Day,” “That Place,” “They,” and “They have to survive” archives the history of the 40 Steps and lives of the refugees. A 71-year-old Jeong Seok-geun, the guide of the hall, came to introduce the memorial hall. He was born in Jung-gu, an administrative district of Busan where the 40 Steps is located, and he has lived here until now. With him, moving to the first theme “That Day,” the reporter could hear the origin of the 40 Steps and the transition of the surroundings.
“Since the Korean War broke out, there have always been a lot of refugees around here. They had nowhere to rest and no place to stay. The 40 Steps was the only space for refugees to rebuild their lives from scratch. Thus, it was always crowded with the people who do not have their own shelter. A popular saying, “If you want to find your separated family, go to the 40 Steps,” also stemmed from this spatial feature.
Now many tall buildings are in front of the 40 Steps, but in the old days we could see the ocean view of Yeong Island from the 40 Steps. I still remember the moment in my head. When I was seven years old I was playing on steps, and there was a woman on the steps carrying a burdle, watching the sea and crying. Now I guess that she was also a refugee, and since she did not know how to live without her family, she cried. Do you know the song “Gyeongsang Provinces Lady” related to the 40 Steps? The lyrics of the song are based on a true story. When a man coming from North Korea was crying on the 40 Steps, a lady from Gyeongsang Provinces talked to him and gave him consolation.”
The place with the theme of “They” and “They have to survive” displays how the refugees lived during the war. He continued “There was a well below the 40 Steps, and people had to pass there to get the water. At that time, women carried heavy buckets of water on their shoulders while going up and down these steep stairs. Some people slept in tents under the stairs. I played games with my friends such as rock-paper-scissors.”
The reporter left the hall and headed back to the 40 Steps. After listening to his vivid stories, the reporter grasp more of the meaning of the 40 Steps compared to the first time the reporter visited. Their pain and sorrow for refugees who were missing their family or hometown had permeated every step.
The tombstone village in Ami-dong, a living foundation for the refugees
1) Entrance of the tombstone village
Taking the bus No. 87 from Jungang Station for about 10 minutes, the bus gradually went up to a mountain leaving the busy streets in Nampo-dong. The bus stopped at Yangseong market. To go to the tombstone village in Ami-dong located in the mountain, the reporter had to take a byway on foot between houses on the slope. Going up the narrow passage between houses for about 15 minutes, the reporter arrived at the entrance of the village and found boards and photographs introducing the village’s history on the wall.
The village is introduced as such: the village located on 19th street in Ami-dong was a cemetery built under Japanese imperialism. When the Korean War broke out and refugees were distributed around Ami-dong, the refugees who did not have the right materials to build their houses, used the tombstones of the cemetery for stairs or as the foundation stones of their houses. Even now, many tombstones used by refugees are embedded in the stairs and walls around Ami-dong.
2) Hidden tombstones and villagers
The reporter headed to the playground to find remaining tombstones in the village. It was easy to see the walls studded with memorial stones written in Chinese characters and patterns. The reporter took a look around to find other tombstones and approached the two elders who were resting on the playground to ask where other tombstones were situated.
One elder named Kim Min-ja, a 84-year-old, said, “The stones with Chinese characters or patterns are not the only tombstones. If you look at the stairs next to you, they are all tombstones. Do you know the plain stone on which you can put food for ancestor-memorial services when you go to the tomb? They are all used for stairs and cornerstones. You can see a red-painted cornerstone over there, which is also a tombstone. The houses here are almost all built on tombstones.”
The reporter asked what this village looked like during the Korean War. Another 79-year-old elder named Kim Jeong-yeol, who moved here in 1953 with her husband born in North Korea, said, “There was not any paved roads on this high mountain at that time. There was only mud or dirt roads.
There were many houses sitting at the top of the mountain, but it took at least an hour to arrive there from downtown. Refugees who came to Busan took tombstones from the vacant lot and built houses on them, or some rented a house with a monthly rent of 20 won. Since almost everyone had little food, we usually ate Sujebi, wheat-flour dough boiled in soup, because it was easy to get the flour or olio called piggie soup, which contained scraps left by the American soldiers.” Kim Min-ja the old woman who has lived here for more than 70 years, continued. “Many people died due to starvation or because their houses collapsed. We could not build such people’s graves here since there was no room, so we just buried them in the ground and built houses again.”
The two elders told reporters, “You can find an observatory and an Ami Culture Learning Center if you pass this alley and go straight.”
3) Touring the village
Off the alley, there are numerous colorful houses lined up along the slope, and beyond them, the Yeong-do Bridge and the Busan Port could be seen further away. There was also a building called Ami Culture Learning Center which was 3km away from there. A gallery of documentary photographer Choi Min-sik who took photos of this village was located on the 2nd floor in this building. At the entrance to the gallery, there was an introduction of him. He is well-known for capturing the difficult lives of the people during the Korean War. The gallery displays photos from the 1960s to 1970s. The pictures showed the entire landscape of Ami-dong, which was full of shanties during the war, and the daily lives of people who lived there, like people in transit with objects on their shoulders, and children with a genial smile.
The words written on the galley, “Wouldn’t nameless people called grass roots be the source of life power?” caught the reporter’s eyes. Like the two elders whom the reporter met, many people who went through the Korean War are still living here today. The will to survive the hard environment of the War revitalize the village and has so far firmly stayed around us.
Kangkangee village full of the hammering sounds of livelihood
1) Where refugees worked
After crossing the Yeong-do Bridge, the reporter came to Daepyong-dong where the strong scent of the salty sea is widespread and many ships are harbored. Numerous ships and ship parts stores were lined up alongside the wharf. This quiet and still village is called Kangkangee Village.
The reporter was able to meet Kang Ja-soo, a 77-year-old village guide who was born in kangkangee village and still lives here till today.
“The original name of this village was Daepung-po, which means “avoid the wind.” In the late 1800s, Japanese fishermen began to come to Busan to take advantage of the fertile fishing ground. Particularly, they often used Daepung-po as a fishing port to repair boats and get drinking water. Shipyards and ship repair stores gradually became concentrated in this village. Henceforth, Daepyeong-dong, which had more than 200 ironworks, shipping tool shops, electronics companies and parts shops, grew into a region with “the best ship-repairing technology in Korea.” There was always a “Kang-Kang-Kang” sound throughout the village. It was the sound of hammering that came from the shipyard, which is for workers to repair ships. Thus, the name of this village was changed to “Kangkangee Village.”
Following the guide, the reporter arrived at “Uri Shipyard” located near a dock. He said, “This shipyard’s name was “Tanaka Shipbuilding Factory,” and it was the first place to set an engine on a wooden boat in Korea.”
Besides this shipyard, many other shipyards were located along the dock. The guide pointed to the big boat and asked me to look at the rust and shellfish attached to the boat. He said, “From the 1960s to the 1980s, middle-aged women were in charge of removing rust and shellfish by hammering. They worked to support their family, particularly for their children, risking falling or getting an industrial ailments such as hearing loss or tinnitus. An acquaintance of mine hammered so much for such a long time that she cannot hear well now.”
2) Where refugees lived
The reporter asked how the village was during the Korean War.
“There were a lot of refugees. They built houses made of rice bags or soil. When it rained, it was hard to fall asleep because of water leaks. Women either sold mugwort or sticks of taffy or hammered on the boat as I mentioned before. Men gathered at the ship’s wharf to learn how to repair the ship.”
In the alley entering with the guide, there were houses that looked only 180 centimeters tall. There were several rooms under one roof. Each room looked to be only three to four squared meters. It is said that different households lived in each room of house.
“This area was named “North Korean Neighborhood,” where especially the people from Hamgyeong-do, a province in North Korea, lived. After the war broke out, there were a lot of people coming down from North Korea. There were so many people that they could not build houses. Now there are mostly empty houses.”
On the way, a person greeted the guide. The guide introduced him as Park Young-ho, vice president of the Daepyeong-dong Community Association.
“I will tell you what I experienced during the war. When I was in sixth grade, many schools said that if you turned in scrap metal, they would give milk or bread to students. One day, a bomb exploded at Youngsun Elementary School. Someone brought things like metal to the school, but he did not know that was a bomb. So, a lot of students died. That was a haunting moment.”
There are many paintings and art sculptures in the theme of the village. This village, which many people had left as the shipbuilding industry shrank, became an art village, and the art and sculptures have made the history of village visually stand out.
Leaving the village and crossing the Yeong-do Bridge, it is no longer simply seen as one village with a dock. The village, which contains the lives of the refugees, seemed to be showing more images of modern Korea.
Most people recognize that Busan has explosively grown to be the second largest city in South Korea in terms of population and production focusing on port functions, and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea, taking advantage of Busan’s regional characteristics. However, readers can recognize that Busan they met through this article is still a city where the history of the lives of the refugees and the vestiges of war vividly remain. From the period of the Korean War to the era of industrialization, Busan retains stories and histories that we did not know of. Through this article, the reporter hopes the readers to take have a chance to look at Busan from a different perspective and engrave the images of refugees who endured hard times in their minds.
By Oh Ju-yeong
Staff Reporter of Global & National Section